About this Recording
8.559721 - LESHNOFF, J.: Chamber Music - String Quartet No. 2 / Seven Glances at a Mirage / Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme / … without a chance

Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973)
Chamber Music


Jonathan Leshnoff has already won an international reputation as one of America’s most gifted young composers. The New Jersey-born composer is riding the crest of a wave of popularity that includes, since 2010, The Philadelphia Orchestra première of his Flute Concerto under Robert Spano and written for Principal Flutist Jeffrey Khaner, and a new orchestral work, Starburst, premièred by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony. Other orchestras that have performed his work include the IRIS, Buffalo, Kyoto, Curtis Institute, Kansas City, Santa Barbara, Tucson, Fort Wayne, Harrisburg, Fairfax, Duluth-Superior, Columbus, Boca Raton, Extremedura, National Gallery of Art, Handel Choir of Dartmouth Symphonies, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

Jonathan Leshnoff’s catalogue includes four string quartets, two oratorios, seven concerti, trios, a string sextet, a symphony and numerous solo and chamber works. Current projects include a dance suite written for and premièred by Gil and Orli Shaham, a Guitar Concerto for Manuel Barrueco, a Cello Concerto for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and a song cycle for soprano Jessica Rivera. Award-winning Leshnoff, a Professor of Music at Towson University, is composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. Leshnoff’s chamber music likewise has received a good deal of attention, with performances by such ensembles as the Carpe Diem String Quartet, 21st Century Consort and Da Capo Chamber Players. The chamber works included on this Naxos release reveal many of the qualities that define Leshnoff and explain his strong appeal to musicians and audiences alike.

The String Quartet No 2 (2008) was commissioned by family and friends of a Baltimore couple, Dr and Mrs Robert Edelman, to honor their fiftieth anniversary. The score, not surprisingly, contains personal gestures. The first movement, for example, revolves around a theme derived from a chant Dr Edelman sings on Sabbath evenings. The second movement is meant to reflect “Mrs Edelman’s warm and caring personality,” the composer says, and the finale aims to capture the doctor’s “very positive attitude on life.”

Much happens in the brief, first movement, an Adagio that unfolds in an arc form, starting from a quiet place and building to an emphatic statement, only to recede again. The movement opens with a theme that descends from instrument to instrument, gaining subtle rhythmic energy when it reaches the cello; the result is a sense of expectancy, even mystery. The second movement, marked Flowing, is filled with soft fluttering patterns that surround a tender, rather bittersweet melody; a jaunty, folk-dance tune slips into the movement. The kinetic finale picks up on the folk-dance idea, now with a distinct suggestion of klezmer spirit, and runs with it.

Seven Glances at a Mirage, for clarinet, violin and piano, packs seven movements into a compact structure that unfolds seamlessly. Composed for the Strata Trio in 2003, the score is seeded by a short, curving theme that rises a few steps and falls back; that theme floats in and out of focus during the piece, which helps explain the composer’s mirage imagery. In a way, the music seems to provide the listener with different perspectives on an object that seems to come closer one moment (literally, in the third movement, when the clarinetist is instructed to play directly into the piano), and recede the next. Leshnoff exploits the coloring of each instrument to keen effect, nowhere more so than in the sixth movement, when the violin and clarinet gently toss rolling melodic riffs back and forth, as if on some far off sea, while the piano tries to stay on terra firma. The finale, permeated by a few soft appearances of the primary theme, creates a wonderfully quizzical effect.

In Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme, a work for violin, cello and piano written in 2003 for the Opus 3 Trio, Leshnoff again displays his knack for instrumental color and for generating an absorbing score out of small thematic motives. In this case, two straightforward phrases provide numerous paths for development—the first phrase contains two short notes (D-flat, G-flat) followed by a sustained one (E-flat); the second phrase expands on that same shape, this time with four notes (G, A, C, G) that approach a sustained one (A). Those thematic ideas are explored in nine variations that range from Bach-like chorales to Bartók-like spikiness. The third, sixth and ninth variations are quite similar in material and mood, helping to unify the trio’s architectural shape. In the misty ninth variation, a serene B-major chord is outlined by cello and piano. The violin stays just outside that tonal center, as if still affected by the “haunted theme.”

Composed for the United States Marine Band, …without a chance represents a response to the horror of 9/11. Although there are moments of darkness and great tension, the piece primarily serves as an elegy, commemorating the vast human toll and affirming the value of the human spirit. This vivid, prismatic piece for percussion ensemble can be heard on a totally abstract level, too, but it is hard to keep out thoughts of the national tragedy. The work opens with the subdued sounds of bells and the outline of a chant-like theme before darting into jagged rhythms, punctuated by insistent drums. At the end, the music glides softly, with the help of rolling chords from the marimba, into what seems like an inevitable, healing realm of A-major before dissipating into the ether.

Tim Smith

Close the window